07 January 2009

Leaving the west and arriving in Central Asia

Sprinklers helped to celebrate Orthodox Christmas Wednesday, Jan. 7, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (BBC News photo).

After a 9 ½-hour flight from New York to in Istanbul, Turkey, and wandering through the Atatürk Airport terminal, I found myself at a Starbucks, which looks like all the other Starbuck s franchises of the world. But it provided a comfortable element of Western familiarity while I waited for my flight to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where I will spend a couple of weeks before continuing on to Kabul. While passing time for my delayed flight to Bishkek, I observed a Muslim man ritually bowing and saying prayers. Starbucks aside, I have left the West.

Oksana (aka Ksana), who I have communicated with regularly since I left Bishkek for the States some seven months ago, met me at Manas Airport, which is named after the hero of the Kyrgyz national epic poem, reportedly the world’s longest. She has lined up a rental property for me for my stay in Bishkek. It is very cold here, at least compared to Albuquerque.

After a good night’s sleep, we walked through the downtown, where there are some observable changes, mostly improvements to commercial properties, to see some mutual friends. The cold doesn’t deter pedestrian traffic or street vendors, including the cookers of shashlik, skewers of meat, occasionally with vegetables, that are grilled over charcoal outside countless cafes.

Wednesday, Jan. 7, is when Christmas is observed by Orthodox Christians, who have dramatically declined in number since Kyrgyzstan achieved independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Christmas as recognized in the West on Dec. 25 is virtually a non-existent holiday, though that could change as Christian missionaries make converts, much to the dismay of many state authorities, who recently passed legislation designed to curb the influence of both non-Muslim faiths and radical expressions of Islam.